I’m not new to atheist polemic of Christianity. I’ve been reminded my fair share of times (online and in person) that miracles are scientifically impossible, that the four canonical gospels are either parables or conspiracy theories, that religion prevents societal and scientific progress, and that God is a man in the sky who definitely does not exist. Today, I’m going to talk about something that seems to trouble a number of prominent Christian authors, namely, Jesus’s prediction in the apocalyptic discourse of the synoptic gospels (for example, Matthew 24) that everything He mentioned, including the end of the world (whatever might actually be entailed by that), would occur within a “generation.” “Truly truly I say unto you, this generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled”.
What’s the problem here? Most modern interpreters, be they atheists or concerned Christian authors like Peter Enns or Christopher Hays, think that it’s obvious by “generation”, Jesus meant what we mean when we talk about the Boomers or Millenials. Obviously that level of generation is about twenty years, and Jesus did not return within twenty years, and so some conclude Jesus was mistaken.
But did Jesus mean generation in that way? Generation has other meanings; like many words, it is not semantically monolithic. Consider Trinitarian theology. The relationship between the hypostases (typically translated “persons”) of the Father and the Son is “generation”. John Chrysostom comments that the Psalms use the word “generation” in a more generalized sense when they say God desires “a generation” that seeks Him.
When one studies how the early church writers felt about this prediction of Jesus, one does not encounter the same sense of embarrassment or confusion that we moderns sometimes feel. Nobody is worried that Jesus said He’d come back before the Millenial Generation (or what have you) died out. Rather, they comment that the generation is the Christian Church as a whole, and that Matthew 24 in this sense is simply restating Matthew 18: the generation of the Church is here to stay until the end, and the Gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
I think this is instructive in many respects. For one thing it is a healthy reminder that texts should not be (cannot be?) interpreted in a vacuum. They cannot be isolated from how they are read by the communities closest to them in history. The Church is Christ’s community, just as Scripture is Christ’s book. I find it fascinating how often that seemingly irreconcilable controversies today were dealt with a very long time ago by the early Church. When I look at what they say about the sacraments, the visibility and oneness of the Catholic Church, and so many other issues, I find that all these things we argue about today might actually have already been solved, and that the answers to Christian problems now is more often than not a matter of looking to the past.